Sunday, 3 February 2013

How Tabarnas Acquired A Mermaid

Rachel was right up close to the tank, sharing a wide-eyed glance with the fish-tailed woman. 
"...A story for another time? What kind of an ending is that?"

"That's the end of the story. The wolf is dead. Avan Weatherstrong bested his opponent. All is well."

"But what about the silver sword, and the Moon Maiden? And who was the servant, you know, really?"

"It's not important, it's just a story."

"It's a rubbish story."

"Then I won't tell you any more."

Before the argument could proceed any further another voice broke in:

"Tabarnas Riseandshine! Are you wasting your time telling stories again?"

Tabarnas Riseandshine looked over his shoulder. He peered into the shadowy interior of the 'Riseandshine and Titsadaisy Goblin Merchants' stall. He turned back to the small child sitting at his feet, a mouse sitting upon her shoulder. He put a finger to his lips indicating that the child should be quiet.

"I am just resting my old bones, dear!" he called back. "I was getting the back pains again."

"I'll give you pains," the voice came back. "We have too much stock that needs sorting out. It's Saturday Market tomorrow and we need to have all our most valuable wares on display."

"I'll be along directly, dear," Tabarnas said. "Just give me a minute to get back on my feet."

"Is that your wife?" the child asked.

"Wife? Ah, well, no, sort of, it's complicated," Tabarnas replied.

"Is it another story for another time?" the girl asked. The corner of her mouth turned down in a cute grimace. A clear indication that she was still not happy about the conclusion to the story of 'Avan Weatherstrong and the Stalker Wolf'.

"No, not a story it's just, well, Cressidia and I are Goblin Merchants, and very old with it," Tabarnas explained. "We're together, till death do us part, but it's more of a... er... contract than a marriage."

"Hmmm," the child said. "I have to say," she continued after considering this for a moment, "I'm not sure I understand the difference."

"Well, maybe when you're older yourself," Tabarnas replied. He got up from his step stool and shuffled along towards the flap at the back of the stall. "I should probably see what Cressidia wants. My eardrums have been known to burst with the shouting when I really annoy her."

"Wait!" the child called out. Tabarnas turned back to her.

"You still haven't told me where I can get some help. And I still don't know where I am."

"I told you that first of all," Tabarnas objected. "The first words out of my mouth! You are in Bridgetown, at the Patchwork Market. This is the only marketplace of significant importance to all creatures of all worlds."

"But where is that?" the child asked, a note of pleading in her voice. "You don't understand. I have come from, well, a very long way away, I'm not entirely certain how I got here. All I have is my friend James the Mouse, his pumpkin and an unreasonably grumpy gnome who comes and goes as he pleases."

"Look, Ruth..." Tabarnas said.

"Rachel," the child cut him off. "My name is Rachel."

Before Tabarnas could say anything else Cressidia appeared at the flap of the stall. Her expression told Tabarnas that he may have to find that ear-ointment before long. The soothing balm they had picked up the last time they had passed through Rolling Meadow. It was the only thing he'd found to soothe the ache of a jolly good telling off.

"Oho! Not wasting your time on stories, eh?" Cressidia asked. "I should have known. You're just unbelievable. Most of the time I don't think you care a jot whether the people you accost even want to hear your stupid stories."

"I only asked for a little help," Rachel said quietly. She had been a much louder girl before Cressidia came out of the stall. Cressidia had that effect on people.

"Help?" Cressidia asked, beaming broadly. "Well, you've come to the right place: Titsadaisy and Riseandshine..."

"Riseandshine and Titsadaisy," Tabarnas corrected her. Cressidia shot him a glance that could have boiled oil. "It's alphabetical," he finished more quietly.

"Either way," Cressidia said, her tone still smooth and warm. "You will find what you require in the finest Goblin Merchant's stall in the whole of Bridgetown and that's for certain."

"Don't bother, Cressidia," Tabarnas said. "The girl has nothing to trade, she's lost, as I understand it."

"There was a bat," Rachel supplied helpfully. "And a bright light... and a gnome."

"Do I look like I have spare time to listen to you prattle on about your life, child?" Cressidia asked, her tone much harsher now that she knew Rachel had nothing in the way of spending money.

"Er, no," Rachel said. "I was just explaining, because I'm on an adventure."

"Well go and be on an adventure somewhere else," Cressidia said. "We have work to do. Come on Tabarnas, I need you to find that sample box from Dr. Pygmalion's House of Potions. I think it's in that trunk from Old Araby."

Tabarnas followed Cressidia into the stall. He observed that Rachel, carrying her pumpkin, mouse on her shoulder, was following. She was being careful to stay out of Cressidia's line of sight. Tabarnas did not relish the idea of sitting alone and sorting through a box of junk, so he did not say anything.

Cressidia and Tabarnas had owned their warehouse stall for a very long time.  So long that it no longer struck him as even mildly interesting that the space within the three canvas walls was so great.  Considerably greater than the size of the small tent structure might have indicated from without. Tabarnas took some pleasure in Rachel's evident wonder and surprise as they made their way through the stock room. Her eyes were like saucers and her mouth hung slightly open as the navigated the maze of six-foot tall shelving units.

"At some point," Cressidia said, "we will have a major clear out, mark my words."

Tabarnas did not mark her words. He knew full well that she had been promising to clear out the warehouse for at least two centuries, probably longer. The amount of stock in the stock room had only increased in the intervening time.

Cressidia couldn't bear to part with anything, except in trade. The thing about a straight trade was that you got one item back in exchange for the item you traded. Cressidia was far too skilled a goblin merchant to only get back goods of equal value in any trade. The massive stock room was a mark of honour among the merchant class. So it grew ever larger. A clear out was not on the cards any time in the foreseeable future.

"That Araby chest is down there at the end and to the left, you need me to show... oh..." Cressidia had turned on her heel and Rachel had not been quick enough to duck out of the way.

"Sorry," the little girl said, her eyes shining with fear. "I just wanted to help out. So maybe you would help me out."

"When did I ever suggest that we needed any help?" Cressidia said. "Because we don't, get out, go on, on your way."

"But... but... I can't find my way out now," Rachel said miserably. "I didn't know that your stall would be so big and contain so many wonderful things."

Calling the stock 'wonderful' was a fine diplomatic move. Tabarnas saw an opportunity. Cressidia's heart was as cold as ice but, like ice, it could be melted with the right heat.

"I'll look after her, she can help me sort the trunk," Tabarnas said.

"What if she's a thief?" Cressidia asked.

"I'm not. I promise!" Rachel objected.

"And if she is we can report her to the Master of the Market," Tabarnas added. "Kalico doesn't tolerate thieving."

"Very well," Cressidia said. "But she helps for the joy of helping, no promises of help in return. And you," she pointed a finger at Tabarnas, "sorting only. No stories!"

"I don't think I can remember any more stories at the moment," Tabarnas lied.

"I'll be checking on you in one hour, I want that box of samples, do I make myself plain?"

"Oh, yes, quite," Tabarnas answered happily. "Come on Rachel, let's get to work."

Tabarnas and Rachel walked down the alley between the shelves that Cressidia had indicated. Tabarnas turned to the left at the end and sure enough the Araby Trunk was sitting on the floor at the end of the stack.

Tabarnas pulled his keychain from his belt. His nimble fingers quickly selecting the correct key from the massive bunch. He unlocked the trunk and peered within.

"So what are we looking for?" Rachel asked looking over Tabarnas's shoulder.

"Oh, don't you worry about looking for it," Tabarnas said. "It's just a box of love potion samples."

"Love potions," Rachel wrinkled her nose in disgust. "How soppy."

"Love potions sell, young lady," Tabarnas said. "Don't you forget it if you ever want to become a goblin merchant. There's always money to be made from fools and the miserable."

"That doesn't sound very nice," Rachel said.

"Got nothing to do with nice," Tabarnas said. "I don't like to go hungry, neither does Cressie, so we sell things, so we eat. Nice don't enter into it."

Tabarnas reached into the muddle of junk in the chest, he grunted as he pulled out a large, dusty book and tossed it onto the floor. Rachel instantly went over and examined the cover.

"Professor Tumblescrape's Elementary Defensive Cantrips," she read. "What's that?"

"Book of Spells," Tabarnas answered. "Just some basic alchemy. I'm trying to clear some room."

Rachel thumbed through the book.

"I can't read," she said. "Never needed to."

"Wouldn't make much difference if you could," Tabarnas answered. "Books like that are written in Alchemese, the language of Alchemy. I suppose it might mean something if you could read that. That would make you an alchemist, though, and they're... well... Let's just say you wouldn't be wandering around Bridgetown asking for hand outs if you were an alchemist."

"I never asked for a hand out!" Rachel said crossly. "I asked for help. It's not the same thing."

"Free help is a hand out," Tabarnas said. "Even I know that."

"Well, let me do something for you," Rachel said. "Then you can help me as payment."

"Well, you could start by helping me with this," Tabarnas said. "It's too big for me to move myself. Just take the end and be careful."

"What is it?" Rachel asked.

"Magic Mirror," Tabarnas replied.

"What's magic about it?" Rachel asked.

Tabarnas shrugged. "I tested it for magic, I don't know what kind it is until I identify and catalogue it, and I haven't."

Tabarnas slid his fingers under one end of the mirror's cool, hard frame. Rachel slid hers under the other.

"Lift carefully on three," Tabarnas instructed. "One, two, three."

Both of them strained but the mirror would not shift. It had fallen flat into the box and other items landing on top of it had wedged it tightly between the back and front sides.

They strained a little but the mirror wouldn't move.

"Drat!" Tabarnas said. "I'm sure the box Cressy wants is just down here, underneath the mirror."

"So what do we do?" Rachel asked.

"We should find something to ease it out with, some kind of grease or oil."

Rachel's mouse came up to her ear, it squeaked in her ear briefly.

"How do you know that, James?" Rachel asked.

The mouse squeaked again.

"But you said you'd never left the garden!"

More squeaking.

"We shall be talking about this later on," she said. Then she looked up at Tabarnas. "Would rainbow grease do the job?"

"Oh yes," Tabarnas said. "But you can only get that from the tail of a merperson. We don't have any in at the moment. It's highly prized as lubricants go."

"James says he saw another merchant with a mermaid in a tank about two minutes walk away," Rachel said.

"James," Tabarnas said. "Is that the mouse? You talk to mice?"

Rachel looked at the mouse and back to Tabarnas.

"I talk to this mouse, this mouse is my friend," she replied.

"So he talks?" Tabarnas said. "There would be some money to be made from a talking mouse."

"He's not for sale!" Rachel said. "He's my friend, not my possession!"

"Very well," Tabarnas shrugged. "But if you change your mind..."

"I won't. Now, shall we get this rainbow grease or not?"

Tabarnas nodded in agreement. He, Rachel and James the mouse wound their way back out of the stall to go in search of the mermaid. Sure enough about seven stalls away there was a small tent that displayed an unhappy looking mermaid in a tank.

There was a man stood next to the tank wearing smart pinstripe trousers and waistcoat over a cream shirt. He sported a thin waxed moustache and his hair smelled of butter and sugar. He'd combed it into greasy curved lines highlighting the style, short and neat at the back and sides, longer on the top.

"You looking to buy mermaid products?" he asked Tabarnas. "I got tears of the Undine, I got bottled songs, I got scales..."

"Rainbow grease," Tabarnas said. "In your smallest size."

"Certainly sir. I have one ounce tubs for a single silver piece," the man said to him. Tabarnas did not know much but he knew that one silver piece for an ounce of rainbow grease was overcharging of the worst kind.

Tabarnas looked over at the mermaid. Usually the poor creature's unhappiness would not have troubled him, but today Rachel was right up close to the tank. The little girl and the fish-tailed woman shared a wide-eyed glance that would make a golem teary. Tabarnas did not need to ask to know that Rachel was not happy seeing the mermaid cooped up in the tank.

Later on Tabarnas would tell himself that it was the price the merchant had attached to a single ounce of grease that had prompted him to act. Whatever the real reason he turned to the merchant and said:

"A silver piece? I don't have anything that small. It looks like I shall have to buy the mermaid, what do you want for her?"

The merchant looked a little surprised at the question.

"I cannot sell you Teleosti," he said. "She is my livelihood."

"You're a merchant aren't you?" Tabarnas asked. "There should be a price on everything."

"Well, maybe for a bag of no less than five hundred gold pieces," the man replied.

Tabarnas understood from that ridiculous price that whatever this man was, he wasn't a merchant. For a start merchants talking to other merchants didn't keep talking about coin. There was far more value and fascination in barter. Now Tabarnas wanted to purchase the mermaid out of a sense of outrage that such an idiot should be allowed a stall because of one.

"I can give you... a magic mirror," Tabarnas said. "Simpler business and fewer... ethical compromises. Those things are bound to do your bidding. You'd need a smaller, less expensive pitch in the fortune teller's quarter, you rake in the coin and the mirror does the work. Much more lucrative than fish by-products. What do you say?"

"Uh," the idiot had clearly never considered this as an option. No true merchant would ever give up selling and buying to become a sideshow attraction. This fool, on the other hand, was clearly considering the offer. "Yes, I think I will do that," he said. "But I want to see the mirror first."

"Well then, I will need an ounce of grease, and I will bring you the mirror directly."

The man looked annoyed.

"Do you think I am stupid?" he said. "I am not going to give you a pot of grease and never see you again. Pay for the grease or pay for the mermaid. No freebies."

"How would it be if I offered you a little... security?" said Tabarans reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a tiny broomstick between his finger and thumb. Once he had it clear of his pocket he shook the tiny object and it quickly grew to full size.

"It's just a portable flying broomstick," Tabarnas said. "But it's worth one gold piece. You can have that as security against the grease."

The portable broomstick would, indeed, have been worth one gold piece. Save for the fact that this broomstick had developed a fault since becoming infected by a virus from a pair of ten-league boots. Tabarnas did not consider that the foolish merchant needed to know about that. After all he would only have the thing for five minutes.

"Very well," the foolish merchant said, taking the broom. He handed Tabarnas a small tub that contained an ounce of rainbow grease.

"Come on Rachel," Tabarnas said. "We should get this man his mirror."

"James is staying here with the mermaid," Rachel said. "So that she isn't lonely."

"Whatever makes you happy, we'll be back before you know it."

"Let the mouse stay," the foolish merchant said. "All the more reason for me to believe you'll come back."

Rachel put her pumpkin down and James climbed inside it. Then she and Tabarnas went back to the stall.

Before long the edges of the mirror had been smothered in rainbow grease. Tabarnas and Rachel had slipped their hands under the free ends again.

"Once more," Tabarnas said. "On three. One... two... three..."

Unfortunately, the rainbow grease did far too good a job this time. The mirror did not stick at all it flew out of the chest and into the air. Spinning and twisting, end over end.

"Don't let it break!" Tabarnas shouted but he was too slow to catch the flying mirror and Rachel was too small.

The mirror landed on the floor and the glass in front of the reflective surface smashed outwards. The sound of the breaking glass rang loud throughout the tent, jangling with the added tone of magical power. Then there came another sound from the broken surface of the mirror.

A pair of gigantic clawed hands curled over the frame

"Cooooooooooooooooobb!" shouted a terrible voice from within the frame.

A pair of gigantic clawed hands curled over the frame, a head covered with shaggy hair followed. A pair of furious yellow eyes looked around as a gigantic troll pulled itself through the frame of the mirror.

"Where is that useless excuse for a knight?" the troll demanded, looking at Tabarnas.

"I haven't seen a knight!" Tabarnas responded, truthful but scared.

"You tell me where I can find Cobb!" The troll shouted. "Or I will smash this stupid place apart!"

"But I don't know!" Tabarnas objected.

"Graaaaaargh!" the troll shouted. "Yaaaargh!"

As good as his word the troll struck out with a meaty arm at the nearest shelf, intent on destruction. The magical security system at work in the stall detected the malicious destructive intent. The system zapped the troll away from the valuable stock outside to the market.

"Where did he go?" Rachel asked, terrified.

"The anti-vandalism charm!" Tabarnas answered. "It sent him outside."

"But James is outside!" Rachel shouted and she scrambled to her feet, running into the stacks.

"Wait!" Tabarnas cried out. "You don't know the stacks! You'll get lost!"

Tabarnas hurried after Rachel but the girl had gone. He looked around following the route out but Rachel had gone and got herself well and truly lost.

"One thing at a time," Tabarnas said to himself, looking about at the trail of destruction the troll had left outside. He made his way back over to the mermaid stall where the foolish merchant, James and the pumpkin were nowhere to be seen. The mermaid was still in her tank but a fresh crack in the bottom right hand corner allowed the water to leak slowly away.

"What happened?" Tabarnas asked the mermaid.

The young woman swum up to the top of the tank so she could speak in the open air.

"The troll chased away Lester," she said. "He swung the broom at it and it took off. It hit the pumpkin and then all three of them... vanished."

"Oh... oh dear," Tabarnas said. "Oh this is an awful mess."

"What's going on?" the mermaid asked.

"I lost the girl. I broke the mirror. I set loose the troll and I've sent that broomstick off with the little girl's mouse and pumpkin attached," Tabarnas said. "And I've cracked your tank."

"Where are my samples, Tabarnas Sunshine?" came Cressidia's voice from nearby.

"Oh, yes, and I still haven't found the samples," he said. "I think I will definitely need some ear ointment."

He looked up at the mermaid who was looking back down at him with an expression denoting utter confusion and despair.

"Come on, young lady," he said, undoing the brakes on her tank and putting his shoulder behind, rolling it back towards the stall. "We'd better find some way of sealing up your tank. Then we can sort out the rest of this mess."

He grunted as he wheeled the mobile tank back towards the stall. As they crossed in front of the smashed up store fronts of the other traders Tabarnas had time to examine the chaos. Nothing worse for business than an escaping troll. Tabarnas believed that he couldn't be any more miserable. In such circumstances there was really only one thing that could cheer him up.

"Young lady," he said, looking up at the mermaid. "Do you like stories?"

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